On March 20, 2020, the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) member countries, including Australia, Japan, India, and the United States, met through a video conference for discussing collective actions against COVID-19 pandemic. Initiated by the US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun, the meeting was unique due to the presence of like-minded democracies like Vietnam, New Zealand, and South Korea. The same group met again on March 27 and further exalted their agenda for a concerted opinion on the survival of concerned economies hit badly by the pandemic.
This alliance is termed as QUAD Plus across academic communities, confirming the restructuring of geopolitical equations in the Indo-Pacific region. Conversely, lack of integration among the whole existing ball of wax poses severe concerns over institutionalizing the QUAD Plus. In the current strategic environment, China has active multi-domain disputes with littorals in the Indo-Pacific. It is high time for compatible democracies to obliterate differences for attaining more significant strategic interests for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
In 2007 the then Japanese premier Shinzo Abe initiated the creation of a multilateral forum of democracies on the conception of Democratic Peace. As pointed out by Prof. Brahma Chellaey of Centre for Policy Research, that the Quadilteral Security Dialogues lays their foundation in Democratic Peace, a widely discussed theory in International Relations states that democratic states rarely go to war against each other. Nevertheless, after QUAD’s formation in 2007, the subsequent years have shown negative growth for the grouping. The same reason formulated the essence of the framework also played an essential role in its early demise; China’s Economic rise.
In February 2008, Australia withdrew from a joint naval exercise by QUAD countries and Singapore after Chinese Diplomatic Protests. The power change in Japan by replacing Abe with a pro-Beijing PM Yasuo Fukuda also triggered the disintegration of the newbie coalition. After 2008, the 31st ASEAN summit held at manila in 2017 viewed the rebirth of the forum and subsequently developed to foreign minister-level by 2019.
The coercive posturing of China in the Indo-Pacific by employing multimodal strategies to assert their national interest causes genuine security concerns over regional giants. This arisen discussion on the need for an extended quadrilateral security dialogue to balance China and to reinstate peace in the South and the East China Seas in compliance with the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China’s economic rise enhanced its influential position in low-income economies of South Asia and Southeast Asia. PRC’s investments diverged into infrastructure, connectivity, and development cooperation. This investment indulges the economies into a debt trap, afterwards directs them to take stands on Beijing’s interest. In 2012, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) failed to issue a joint declaration against China’s construction activities in the Scarborough shoal after Cambodia’s refusal. This refusal is noticeable and points to the fact of how china is using its economic might to legitimize their illegitimate actions. Moreover, China restricts its dependant countries engagement in multilateral organizations which have the intentions to balance Chinese actions.
However, this conception is changing recently; more nations stated about the aggressive behaviour of Beijing openly. The Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, set up a new wing exclusively for Indo-Pacific in 2019. The same year the ASEAN published an outlook on Indo-Pacific. This pin-down new dynamics in shaping Indo-Pacific politics. Parlance with these developments, capitalizing shared interests is the key to address the issues.
This is high time for a reoriented QUAD leadership extended with new members for effective strategy building in deriving inclusive approach against the pandemic. China, with its expansionist policies amid the pandemic, necessitates the need for an extension and participation of the economies which are dependant economically on PRC in the unofficial QUAD-Plus meetings, reflects this.
Australia accounted for 250% more of its trade plus with china than the total trade surplus. Furthermore, 31% of the total exports from Australia concentrated on China in 2018. A country relies mainly on trade with China openly stood against the spread of the virus and been vocal for an international probe for investigating the origin of the virus. Same as Australia, New Zealand which shares similar instincts with China in trade also signalled deviance by endorsing the Indo-Pacific officially rather than Asia-Pacific which they often referred to earlier.
The recent troubles in diplomatic relations between South Korea and Beijing over the stationing of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missiles in Seoul also prompted their participation in QUAD Plus virtual dialogue. This issue raised concern regarding the monitoring capacity of THAAD missiles to oversee China’s activities.
For India and Vietnam, both are victims of China’s expansionist politics amid the pandemic. The skirmishes at Galwan valley and loss of 20 military personnel trigger New Delhi to take leadership in multilateral forums to effectively make decisions that they shied away from doing so in the past. Vietnam lost its two vessels in the last couple of months in the South China Sea, which is rammed and sank.
Japan’s new policy to diversify the risks and to reduce the over-dependence of Japanese firms in manufacturing units of China is the latest example. China’s surveillance cutters patrolling in the disputed Senkaku islands also induced Tokyo’s actions. Abe hopes the new policies yield more on security and strategic aspects and to endow more opportunities for medium-sized firms in Japan.
Recently, India stated their interest to include Australia in the Malabar naval exercises. This change has immense importance on the grounds of the United States dipping presence after its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 and the prospective impact of COVID-19 in the future of its deployments in the South China Sea. For a rules-based order in Indo-Pacific, the role of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative is cunning. Still, the herculean task will be to institutionalize QUAD Plus coupled with expected economic risks posed by China. There are prospects for comprehending the idea of QUAD plus to flatten the lopsided power distribution in Indo-Pacific in the current strategic environment.